Vanessa Leggard is a social media consultant and publisher of an online lifestyle and entertainment resource guide, Hamptonsmouthpiece.com. She lives in Sag Harbor with her husband and daughter.
Who taught you how to cook?
My mother is from the Caribbean, and Caribbean parents cook all the time. I grew up with Caribbean food and never really learned how to cook, because she cooked so much. When I first met my husband and we got married, people used to come to our house and bring their own food. My mom or my mother-in-law would send us home on Sunday with Tupperware full of food so we wouldn't go hungry.
I didn't start cooking until my older daughter was 2 or 3, and then I thought, "I gotta learn how to cook now." I got some cookbooks. I started making pasta and for a straight month I'd only make pasta. Then I bought a wok and for a whole month all I made was Chinese food.
Where do you get your ideas these days?
I get a lot of inspiration from restaurants. I was at LT Burger in Sag Harbor and I loved the caramelized onions on the burger there. I thought, I'm going to try to figure out how to make these onions, because they're going to make a meal. The first two times I made them they didn't come out right. Then, I had the idea to add maple syrup. That was the ingredient. And then I invented this chicken appetizer.
I hear you have a famous gumbo recipe.
That is my mother-in-law's recipe. My husband was really in love with her cooking. His mother taught me his favorite meals. When she died, I inherited all of her recipes. When he is really missing his mother, I just bring back that memory for him. I follow the recipe to the "T," so it tastes just like hers. What makes it so special is that it's so simple. Sometimes with gumbo, there are just too many ingredients. I don't even add any vegetables. I take the meat off the chicken legs after I cook them, so there are no bones in the finished dish. The most important thing I've learned about making this recipe, and with any recipe, really, is patience. I will cook it for 2 hours on low heat. I'm careful when thickening the gravy, so there are no lumps. If you can have patience, your food will always be good.
LEMON-PEPPER CHICKEN ON TOAST
Vanessa serves this as an appetizer, but sometimes splits the baguette or uses rolls to make sandwiches with the onions and chicken.
1 1/2 pounds whole boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons lemon pepper seasoning
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 large white onion
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 loaf French bread
6 to 7 ounces store-bought or homemade pesto sauce
1. Thinly slice chicken and season with lemon pepper, garlic powder, black pepper, parsley and hot red pepper flakes, if using.
2. In a large skillet, heat 4 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high. Add chicken and cook until cooked through. Transfer to a bowl to cool slightly. Cut into smaller pieces if necessary to fit bread.
3. Add 2 tablespoons water, the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and onion and cook until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add maple syrup and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are fully cooked and caramelized, about 5 minutes.
4. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Thinly slice bread, spread on a baking sheet, and toast in the oven until golden, 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Spread pesto on bread slices, add a piece of chicken, top with some onions, and serve immediately. Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer.